Interview with Ms. Fatemeh Sefidkon, professor of Research Institute of Forests and Rangelands, Head of ‘Center of Excellence for Plant Essential oils’
Greetings and appreciation for the time you allocated to this interview, please, introduce yourself and explain a little about your background in research and your expertise regarding medicinal plants.
This is Fatemeh Sefidkon, member of the scientific board of Research Institute of Forest and Rangelands. I have been working on medicinal plants of Iran for over 20 years now. My main line of expertise, is the extraction and analysis of medicinal plants active compounds or phytochemistry. I have also gained knowledge in other fields of medicinal plants due to my collaborations with other researchers in Research Institute of Forests and Rangelands, and my colleagues and related contributors in universities and research centers in the field of medicinal plants, as well as, agro-industry companies in the same field. I am a research professor, and the administrator of more than 25 research projects, have participated in a lot of research projects implementation, supervisor and advisor of more than 120 master’s theses and PhD dissertations in different fields of medicinal plants. 160 of my papers have been published in reliable international journals and 120 in national science and research journals. I have also taught varieties of courses in the field of phytochemistry or chemistry of natural compounds, in graduate and postgraduate levels, in Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran University and Shahid Beheshti University. I am the chief editor of ‘Science and Research Journal of Iranian Medicinal and Aromatic Plants”, I’ve been awarded several times, as the best researcher of Ministry of Agriculture Jihad, and once been chosen as the best National Researcher.
In respect to your experience and participation in different fields of research regarding Iran’s medicinal and aromatic plants, please, explain about the background and history of research in this field.
There’s a long history of research in the field of medicinal plants in Iran. When we go through our glorious history of the knowledge of medicinal plants and traditional medicine we come across significant people such as Avicenna, who is a world-renowned thinker, then we reach the present time, when the world has come to use natural products and medicinal plants once again, after realizing the side effects of synthetic medicines. Some decades ago, our country started carrying out new researches. Ever since the establishment of Research Institute of Forests and Rangelands in 1969, research on identification of medicinal plants in Iran, and exploitation of by-products, were proposed. During the first years of revolution, a national project of identification of medicinal plants in all the provinces of Iran, and the domestication techniques of some plants started. In the early 90s, the identification of endemic medicinal plants active compounds and their application, were formed in the shape of an international project with UNDP, and for the first time, extraction and identification of essential oils of endemic aromatic plants of Iran were included in the agenda. Simultaneously, other universities implemented some research in this field, for instance, Dr. Rustaiyan’s research on identification and determination of some structure elucidation in medicinal plants of Iran, prominent professors, such as Ali Zargari’s endeavor to compile books on medicinal plants and some other great people, whom I cannot name due to shortage of time. These people are our country’s pride. Gradually, medicinal plants and their usage in different industries attracted the attention of a large number of people, institutes and organizations, and the medicinal plants were subject of varieties of research in different fields such as botany, ecology, agriculture, horticulture, phytochemistry, pharmacy, etc. Today, apart from the university majors relevant to medicinal plants, science and research journals, domestic and foreign papers, the many books, the manufacturing and distribution of drug, food, health and cosmetic products from medicinal plants, all indicate the researches productive results as well as the public and the manufacturer’s general tendency towards production and use of medicinal plants. However, there’s of course, a long distance to our true situation in production, processing and export of medicinal plants.
As you are working for one of the country’s biggest research institutes for medicinal and aromatic plants (Research Institutes of Forests and Rangelands), and you are the editor of a quarterly journal for science and research of medicinal and aromatic plants of Iran, you have comprehensive knowledge of the condition of research in this field, what are some shortages and deficiencies in research? What are some priorities regarding the needs of our country?
That’s a very good question, what is seen in the researches that are being and have been conducted, is that unfortunately, there are a large number of repetitive researches carried out on plants that are easily accessible, or only the first steps in to the research procedure is taken. For instance, the students of agriculture implement a research on plants whose seeds are more conveniently available. Of course, the administrative issues due to our country’s current condition and the little credit allocated to the student’s theses and research plans, are understandable. But what our country needs is domestication and agriculture of endemic plants, some of which are native. These plants have relative advantages over the rest, and can be competed with commercialized medicinal plants of the world. Clearly, research on these plants requires, going to their habitats, collecting seeds at appropriate time and growing and breeding these plants, in other words, it’s a more difficult task, but this is what the country needs, to look for research that is a bit different from the old ones and not purchase ready-made seeds. This is also the same for other specialties, for example, a lot of post-graduate students of horticulture, study about genetic varieties, phytochemistry and morphology of one plant species, which is a valuable task, However, the first step of research is for domestication and cultivation of the plant, and if it doesn’t continue to lead to the identification of the Variety and development of cultivation and domestication of the plant, we can say the research is incomplete. We can also say that the same applies to researches in the field of phytochemistry, microbiology and pharmacy. If I am to summarize it, I’d say, the research is not satisfactory if it is not based on the country’s needs, nor if all the steps from beginning till end have been taken. If those are done we can expect practical results and value added production.
The establishment of the center of excellence for research of aromatic plants and essential oils, was a new and huge step for the applied research in Iran. Please, explain about the way the idea of this scientific center of excellence was formed, its goals, its activities and its future prospects.
This center of excellence was established by me and other members of the center’s request, with the goal of overcoming the issues discussed in your previous question, that is, for purposeful and consistent research plans in aromatic plants and essential oils. In other words, one of our country’s greatest potentials is the existence of varieties of aromatic plants. Also, there have been a lot of researches on quality and quantity of essential oils of these plants in Iran. Together with the main members of this center, we have reached a decision to choose 20 species of the two genera (Thymus and Satureja), most of which are native to Iran. In the previous research, these were proven that are able to compete with world’s commercial plants. We are willing to carry out all the necessary research to cultivate the suitable species of these genera in their appropriate region and then to enter them into processing and production fields, until the result of such research reaches the market and the public. I am hoping that this procedure will act as a model for the rest of the researches in the field of medicinal plants.
Fortunately, with more than 100 undergoing projects in this center, the researches are in the form of two national comprehensive projects, and there are large number of researchers from Research Institute of Forests and Rangelands, research centers of agriculture and natural resources in different provinces of Iran, and some universities, graduate and post-graduate students are all working together and some good results have been reached. To sum it up, these researches are like puzzles of one comprehensive project being put together and, if God’s willing, they will reach the ultimate result.
You have a long experience of teaching in prominent universities of Iran especially in postgraduate levels, do you think, the syllabuses available to students in majors relevant to medicinal plants right now, are efficient and in accordance with the needs of the society?
In my opinion the syllabuses are good. Fortunately, although these majors are relatively new, the syllabuses are suitable. But the content and methods of presenting them are not of the same quality in all the universities and among all professors. I think that professors of medicinal plants courses must increase their research experiences and visit the relevant industries of Iran and the world, update themselves with the world’s researches and know the needs of their country, in order to be able to increase the students’ knowledge of these courses as much as possible.
One of your most valuable works, which, unfortunately, has neither been introduced nor distributed properly in the country is, the book entitled ” Chemistry and Large-Scale Extraction of Essential Oils”, please, explain your goals regarding its compilation and the subjects introduced in it.
The subjects mentioned in my book are, the scientific definitions of essential oils and their chemical components, biosynthesis of essential oils components in plants, theoretical and practical methods of distillation, isolation methods of essential oils both in lab- and large-scale, the effective parameters on the quality and yield of essential oils, industrial extraction machines, methods for improving the quality of essential oils, the problems, drawbacks, and advantages of different distillation methods, and suggestions for overcoming these problems as well as the industrial methods of extraction of concrete and absolute from aromatic plants. This book was written both for students and those in industries. By using the subject matters of this book in medicinal plant processing industry, the quality of the essential oils produced will be greater, thus, higher prices and better chance of competing worldwide. We don’t have enough Farsi books and sources on chemistry, natural compounds and processing of medicinal plants and my goal for writing this book was to satisfy the students’ needs and those in the industry.
Considering your scientific and practical experience in the field of extraction and identification of medicinal plants active compounds, what’s Iran’s scientific and technological level of processing industry in medicinal plants? What are some of its shortages and deficiencies? What strategies do you recommend to increase exploitation and quality?
Unfortunately, I should say the level of science and technology in medicinal plants processing industry is not suitable in Iran. I’ve visited so many factories and industries, although some of them had imported their machinery from abroad and have good formulations, there are some things that are not observed, such as the basic principles in designing and manufacturing of domestic machines and even foreign machines, as well as extraction, processing and manufacturing methods. Of course, we cannot generalize it, since presently, there are some companies which make high-quality products, but there are a lot of companies, that I believe, can make much better products with higher qualities, than what they are manufacturing now. Unfortunately, in our country in general, not only industries and contributors in medicinal plants but also a lot of producers do not believe in the application of science and scientific principles. The relation between the universities and scientific centers, and the industry is not at the agreeable level. The companies are not willing to spend on science utilization, although, in my opinion, this is not expenditure but investment, because the use of scientific principles means the increase of production qualities, profits and the value-added.
Which countries are among the best and most prominent in the industry of active compound extraction and medicinal plants processing? Are there any especial institutes or companies that can be used as a role model in the industry of medicinal plant processing development?
Of course, in order to answer your question correctly, I have to have seen all the processing industries around the world, which I haven’t, but from what I know, different countries are our role models in different fields, for example, Germany in medicine and medicinal products, Canada in relevant researches for finding specific active compounds in its endemic or non-endemic plants for treatment of some diseases, France in its use of essential oils and plant extracts in perfumery, cosmetic and health industry, and finally Japan, in research as well as the use of natural products.
A lot of your post- graduate students have left Iran for sabbatical, how have these young students’ experiences contributed to Iran’s medicinal plants industry?
A lot of the students take the opportunity of sabbatical leave to increase their knowledge in the field of research. In European and American educational and research environments, research facilities are widely available, procedures are easy and bureaucracy is not as much as it is in Iran, therefore, these eager students are led to spend hours in laboratory environment and participate in one or more research projects. Sometimes, these students make use of this studying opportunity to work on their post-graduate thesis. Although, all of these are good experiences, they are not enough. If these students try to make the most of their time in this rare studying opportunity to visit as much as they can, the agro-industries, workshops and manufacturers, or even more importantly, gain enough information about prevalent mechanism, management issues, and the points which led to the success of these countries in development of medicinal plant industry, these would further help them to use their experience in order to better the medicinal plant industries of Iran.
In the end, in case there’s anything you would like to include in the Written Documentary, we are pleased to hear it.
As the last note, I would like to mention the researchers expectations of Development of Research and Technology Council in Medicinal Plants and Traditional Medicine and that is, to strongly support applied research and help conserve the biodiversity of medicinal plants. It’s also vital to support the manufacturing companies, which is perfectly carried out by this and all the other Councils of Vice-Presidency for Science and Technology. This support would lead to the industrial development, but when alone, it cannot add to varieties and better qualities, it cannot increase the value-added, and make bigger shares for Iran in the global trading. The researches must make possible the identification of medicinal plants potentials in our country, and must look at the effects of climatic conditions on the active compounds, quality and functions of medicinal plants, must be able to introduce to the industries, new competing species for cultivation and exploitation, must find new formulations, and the researches must serve hundreds of other purposes which cannot be pointed out here in this limited time. Medicinal Plants Council, has unfortunately, weakened its support of basic research. Research is time-consuming and expensive, and in current condition it is not valued enough, which is disagreeable for our country. I am hoping that Medicinal Plants Council seriously rethinks these policies.